South American Camelids

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Camels Move On


What most people think of as camels—dromedaries and Bactrians—are so firmly associated with the deserts of Africa and Asia that it is hard to believe they have close relatives in South America. Camelids originated in North America 40 to 45 million years ago, then evolved on the continent's grasslands into a diverse array of forms, including the gazelle-like Stenomylus, the giraffe-like Aepycamelus, and the nearly 12-foot-tall Titanotylopus, which resembled today's Old World camels. William Franklin, professor emeritus at Iowa State University in Ames, says, "At one time, there were probably several dozen genera of camelids in North America. In some areas, they were surely the dominant large herbivores." Then, six to three million years ago, opportunities for leaving their homeland arose when the Earth's climate cooled and sea levels fell, exposing land bridges to the south between Panama and South America, and to the north across the Bering Strait between Alaska and Asia.

Those that migrated north, from a "tribe" of camels called the Camelini, spread across Eurasia and eventually evolved into several species including the dromedaries and Bactrians we know today. The Lamini tribe went south and evolved into, among others, the vicuñas and guanacos of South America, and most recently their domestic forms, alpacas and llamas.

The camelids remaining in North America persisted until near the end of the Pleistocene epoch between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, when like so many other large mammals they went extinct due to human overhunting, climate change, introduced diseases, or some combination of these factors. Except for the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) and guanaco (Lama glama), South American camelids went extinct about the same time. Some Eurasian camel species may have survived a bit longer, but today only domestic dromedaries, domestic Bactrians, and a handful of wild Bactrians (Camelus bactrianus) remain.

Even though the Old World Camelini and New World Lamini diverged about 11 million years ago, many similarities remain. All of the camelids are herbivores living in open habitats from savanna grassland to desert, and their split upper lip helps them grasp and tear off bits of grass or leaves. They also possess long necks, slender heads, long eyelashes, padded feet with two toes, and the ability to get by without much water. They can "kneel" on their hind legs when they sit down, unlike cows and horses.

All camelids also have a three-chambered stomach. Food goes to the first stomach chamber where it is partially digested, then regurgitated—in other words, camelids "chew the cud" just as cows do. The cud is swallowed and moves through the next two chambers to be fully digested. This complex digestive system ekes out as much energy as possible from diets that are mostly grass.

When defending themselves or fighting for dominance, camelids spit the contents of their mouth or a foul-smelling fluid from the first chamber of their stomach. Another behavior all camelids share is their curious walking gait, whereby their legs on each side move in unison rather than alternating, as do those of most other four-legged mammals.

There are differences too, the most obvious being that South American camelids have no humps, and are much smaller than Old World camels. While dromedaries and Bactrians weigh in at 1,000 pounds, the heaviest South American camelid, the domestic llama, weighs only about 185 to 300 pounds.

South American camelids also have adaptations that allow them to thrive at high elevations. Their thick wool coats keep them warm, and their extra-large hearts and lungs keep their bodies well-supplied with oxygen in the thin air. And, although they're tremendously useful to people, New World camelids are not nearly so famous as their Old World counterparts.

South American Camels

Llamas in group

The South American camels did not develop humps, but there can be no mistake about their family origin if the head of the llama is studied and then compared to that of the 'true camel'.

Of the four members of the camel family in South America, two are domesticated and two are wild animals. The domesticated forms are the llama and alpaca. The llama is used as a pack animal, but it is also bred for its wool and its tender meat. Its dung is used as fuel in areas where there is little timber. The alpaca is bred for its superb wool. Wool from the alpaca was once used to weave robes for the Inca noblemen.

The guanaco is a wild member of the South American camel quartet and it still survives in reasonable numbers in the mountains of Peru and Ecuador and in the hills and plains of Patagonia.

Smallest of all camels is the vicuna. This animal stands only 90cm (30 ins) at the shoulder and weighs no more than 50kg (110lb). Once widespread on the higher plains of the Andes, the vicuna has been seriously reduced in numbers due to over-hunting. Thanks to careful protection and conservation this species has been brought back from the very brink of extinction, but it must still be regarded as a threatened wild animal in need of full protection

Inka Empire and the Camels

Llamas and alpacas are inextricably intertwined with the rise and spread of the Inca Empire, which began to grow in the Peruvian Andes about 1200 C.E. The Inca built beautiful and sturdy walls, buildings, and towns of interlocking stone. They built irrigation systems to keep entire valleys green in the arid environment. And they built 14,000 miles of roads that crisscrossed the empire and eventually extended about 3,400 miles, from Ecuador south to central Chile and parts of Argentina.

Llamas and alpacas were with them every step of the way. Llamas carried materials for building roads, temples, and irrigation canals; baskets of gold and silver out of mines; and cargo for trade. These surefooted animals with padded feet transported whatever needed moving in a society that never invented wheels, perhaps because wheels were far less effective in steep rocky terrain than animals adapted to walking on such rough ground.

Alpacas were prized for their fine and fluffy wool, from which the Inca fashioned tunics, tapestries, twine, rope, and bags. Men wore wool tunics and women wrapped themselves in larger pieces of wool fabric. But clothes were not just for keeping warm in the cold mountain air. Detailed patterns in a variety of colors spelled out the ethnic group and class of the wearer. Leaders exchanged finely woven clothes to keep the peace. The most beautiful articles of wool clothing were used to dress religious figurines that were burned as offerings to the gods.

Moore says, "We know that cloth and stuff made out of cloth has been very important in the Andes over the years as trade and exchange items, and as a way of showing the symbols of the world you belong to, your beliefs, your rank in society. The earliest cloth we have is already studded with messages." Today, people of the Andes continue to produce colorful and intricately patterned ponchos and hats from the wool of alpacas and llamas.

Alpacas and llamas also supported the Inca Empire with meat, leather, fat for food and candles, pelts for blankets, and dung for fuel. Dried llama or alpaca meat was called charqui, a word that later became "jerky" in English. The Inca stored vast quantities of jerky and similarly dried fish and plants along royal highways to fortify traders and soldiers on long journeys through the empire.

Llama and alpaca wool was also used to make knotted records called quipu. The Inca did not develop a system of writing, but they kept track of immense quantities of food, textiles, precious metals, and people by making knots in colored twine. The importance of llamas and alpacas to the Inca culture is further illustrated by the fact that they were frequently depicted in art such as ceremonial bowls, pitchers, tapestries, and figurines made of silver and gold. Some of the art shows llamas being used in ritual sacrifice.

Their importance is also suggested by European accounts of the size of their herds. Cornell University anthropologist John V. Murra wrote, "It is difficult to imagine the size and pan-Andean distribution of herds. In the early decades after the invasion, European observers were stunned by the omnipresence of the beasts… ." Murra goes on to say one European reported that "he had heard of an Indian who is not even a lord just a local personage…who had more than 50,000 head of stock."

The invasion Murra mentions, of course, is that of conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his small army of Spaniards. In 1532 C.E., they captured Atahuallpa, the leader of the Inca, in the city of Cuzco in what is now Peru. Pizarro demanded and received a room full of gold and two rooms full of silver for the release of Atahuallpa, then executed him anyway. The Inca Empire, already weakened from the onslaught of European diseases, crumbled.

Five Main Types of South American Camelids


The llama is the largest and hardest working South American camelid. Like the camel, these are pack animals that can travel longs distances. It’s fur is not valuable like the others, but it is prized for its traveling and carrying abilities. It is South America’s favorite Beast of Burden.


The alpaca is the most commonly seen camelid in South America. Its fur is highly prized and used to make everything from sweaters and scarves to blankets and gloves. You will see herds making their way up steep mountain tracks throughout the Andes, often marked with a brightly colored ribbon in their ear. Alpaca meat, which is fat- and cholesterol-free and tender like steak, is common on dinner tables and restaurants in Peru and Ecuador. The alpaca has been domesticated for more than two thousand years, with ancient civilizations in Peru such as the Moche and later the Incas, all incorporating the animal into their daily lives.



The vicuña is the thinnest of the camelids and seemingly the one with the biggest eyes. The soft features of its face are reminiscent of a cartoon deer such as Bambi. The vicuña is rarer than other camelids and its fur is the most expensive because of its softness and quality.

The two species' ranges do not overlap much, but where they do, the animals choose slightly different habitats. Vicuñas are more restricted in their diet, eating primarily grass and some small forbs and lichens, whereas guanacos eat shrubby vegetation as well. Vicuñas must drink water daily, especially during the dry season; guanacos can go for long periods without drinking water.

Franklin has studied South American camelids for 40 years, beginning with a four-year study of vicuñas in the early 1970s, then studied guanacos as well to compare their ecology and social behavior. Scientists are uncertain whether alpacas are the domestic descendants of vicuñas or guanacos.

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Franklin found that vicuñas live in family groups composed of a male, several females, and their young. When the young near maturity, the male forces them out of the group. Unless they're defending a territory alone while attempting to attract females, bachelors form all-male herds while females try to join existing family groups. The vicuñas do not migrate seasonally. Instead, family groups live on permanent, year-round territories that the male defends from all intruders. Although some territories are better than others, each contains sufficient forage to support the group all year. The best territories also have a permanent source of water. Habitat with good forage is found in scattered patches between bare ground and other unsuitable habitat.

Seasonally, territories are also used for mating and breeding. A male defends his females from the attentions of other males, and actively prevents his adult females from leaving. Unusual among mammals, a male limits the number of females that live on his territory—the average is three—probably to ensure there is enough food to go around. Over time, the size of the group on a territory is fairly constant. "Females most likely pick males for real estate, not for good looks," Franklin says. "But the male more often than not rejects outside females. There is a relationship between the number of animals in a group and the amount of the forage in that territory. Who knows how the male assesses what is going on?"

Franklin also discovered that vicuña groups actually use two territories—one for daytime foraging, and a smaller one at a slightly higher elevation for nighttime sleeping, which perhaps offers greater safety from predators. Males mark their territories with dung piles that females and young also use. The piles act as fertilizer, and where the dung piles are on steep slopes, the dung falls downhill and produces strips of relatively lush vegetation.



The fur of the guanaco is slightly less fine and less full than that of the alpaca. Its fur tends to be a lighter brown with a white belly and gray face. Patagonia and Torres del Paine in the very south of the continent are the most common habitats for guanacos, where they tend to roam in large groups. For all their similarities, vicuñas and guanacos—the wild South American camelids—are a study of contrasts. Vicuñas weigh between 80 and 110 pounds and live on windswept, cold, semi-arid plains called puna between about 10,000 and 16,000 feet. They inhabit the Andes in central Peru, western Bolivia, northwestern Argentina, and northern Chile. Guanacos are larger, between 185 and 300 pounds, and are more widely distributed. They live from sea level to 13,000 feet in a wide variety of open habitat in and around the Andes, from northern Peru all the way to the southern tip of South America. The vast majority of guanacos live in a region called Patagonia in southern Chile and Argentina.

Guanacos' social system differs from that of vicuñas' in being far more variable and flexible, as is their habitat and feeding ecology. Some guanacos live in sedentary family groups on year-round territories. Others have only seasonal breeding territories and migrate when forage is covered in snow or dries up. Group size varies over the year and females move in and out of the group freely; sometimes females form their own all-female groups. Very large mixed herds of both sexes are also seen in migratory populations. Territorial males drive out their young, but not until they are older than vicuñas are when they are expelled. Guanacos appear not to have separate nighttime territories.

In both species, females give birth to a single offspring each year. As with many ungulates, the young can walk just a few minutes after birth. In fact, Franklin notes that if researchers want to tag infant vicuñas, they must do so within the first 15 minutes after their birth—vicuñas older than that can easily outrun a human.


The Huarizo is the least likely of the South American camelids you will encounter. The offspring of a male llama and a female alpaca, the animal is bred for its fleece and as a pet.

Preserving the existence of South Anerican Camelids

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The social disarray that followed the European conquest of the Inca Empire led to the loss of old breeds. Herds of domestic camelids were decimated as European sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs replaced them on pastureland, and they nearly disappeared by the end of the 1500s. Wild camelids fared even worse.

Scientists estimate the pre-Columbian population of guanacos at 30 to 35 million and that of vicuñas at perhaps several million. In the centuries following the fall of the Inca Empire, over-hunting in combination with competition for pastureland from introduced livestock greatly reduced the numbers of guanacos and nearly wiped out vicuñas. By the 1960s, only about 10,000 vicuñas remained. Today, the population has rebounded to several hundred thousand. Guanacos number around 0.5 million, but they occupy less than half of their former range.

Populations of guanacos and vicuñas have stabilized and grown in recent years due to some fairly standard methods—setting aside protected areas and enforcing laws against illegal hunting. A more unusual conservation technique has helped boost the numbers of vicuñas: shearing wild animals and releasing them alive. The ability to legally live-shear the animals reduces people's incentive to hunt them for their fleece, and shorn vicuñas have no value to a poacher.

Vicuñas have one of the finest fibers in the world, at a diameter of 12 micrometers. (The fiber of cashmere goats is 14 to 19 micrometers, and that of shahtoosh from the Tibetan antelope, or chiru, is from nine to 12 micrometers.) "It's hard to exaggerate the silkiness of vicuña fiber," Moore says. "When you rub a tuft in your fingers, you can see it but you can't feel it, it is so fine." It is so sought-after that in 2004 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) could be sold for $566 wholesale. One ounce of certified live-sheared vicuña fiber retails for $250 in the United States.

According to some reports, the Inca (and perhaps others before them) periodically rounded up thousands of vicuñas, at two- to three-year intervals, in massive efforts involving as many as 30,000 people. Some vicuñas were killed immediately for meat and leather, but most were shorn of their precious wool and set free. The time between roundups was dictated by the time it took the vicuñas to regrow their fleece to a length of one to two inches.

In 1995, to promote both conservation and local economic development, the government of Peru began encouraging its citizens to conduct similar vicuña roundups. Villagers on foot herd vicuñas into a net-lined chute that leads to a small corral, where the vicuñas are inspected and sheared. The fiber of sheared vicuñas grows back completely in two or three years. If the vicuñas' fleece is not long enough or they are youngsters then they are let go.

A study done in Peru and published in Conservation Biology in February of 2007 looked at females shorn in the spring, and found no increase in mortality of the females or decrease in number of young they produced compared to unshorn females. But more research must be done to determine if the same can be said of vicuñas shorn in cold weather.

In some places in Peru, vicuñas are living permanently inside large corrals (on the order of 2,500 acres) to facilitate roundups. However, while corralling makes live-shearing easier, some scientists are concerned that it may interfere with natural gene flow between corralled and uncorralled populations, or that being corralled will set the vicuñas on the path to domesticating themselves.

Live-shearing guanacos is not a widespread practice, but some people think it should be. Guanaco fiber is nearly as fine as vicuñas'. In the wild, the animals are threatened by poaching and by competition from sheep, which graze on similar plants. A study published in the Journal of Arid Environments in 2006 demonstrated a successful process for capturing and live-shearing wild guanacos in Patagonia. The authors propose that a live-shearing program—similar to Peru's live-shearing vicuña program—could enhance the conservation of guanacos, because local landowners would be more motivated to help protect the animals if they were able to earn income from live-shearing.

If these programs move forward, and people can legally shear vicuñas and guanacos on a large scale while leaving the animals wild and free, it will represent an ingenious twist in the age-old story of domestication and the newer story of conservation.

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